These days, the phrase “interactive narrative” is one that’s heavily bound up with the medium of video games. But back in the Olden Times before video games were invented, if you wanted the world around you to change depending on your actions then your best bet was to pick up a Choose Your Own Adventure Novel! Or to go outside and do things. But the novel was probably easier.
It seems that Ryan North, the guy who created Dinosaur Comics, also noticed that particular similarity. He set to work mixing the DNA of this precursor to the gaming industry up with its descendants, like a particularly literary John Hammond, and the result was To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure! Which, as the title implies, is based on the Choose Your Own Adventure book of the same name (oh and also this play called Hamlet that gained a cult following over the years).
The game works as a text-adventure, so the gameplay’s as simplistic as it gets. You click the screen and bits of narrative pop up: reading it aloud with your best Morgan Freeman impression is optional but encouraged. Just like Shakespeare’s play, the game starts with the usual situation of something rotten in the state of Denmark, where Hamlet’s just got back from university, the king’s been poisoned by his brother and he’s currently roaming the halls, trying to plan out a father-son vengeance activity.
But then the game starts giving you choices. Do you want to play as Hamlet, Ophelia or the ex-king? Do want to get your friends involved in your ghostly adventure or keep it to yourself? Come to think of it, should you actually help your dad out by faking insanity and murdering his brother to death? And from there, the story begins to branch out in directions Shakespeare probably didn’t quite intend.
There is the option to stay on script, of course, and see the play through to the end as it was originally written. Even if you’ve never read it before, there are little skull markers laid out next to the “correct” options so you know what to do and what to click to follow the path that Shakespeare took. Playing through the game that way gets you an entertaining summary of the play’s plot, with choice excerpts from the text and the bonus of drawing extra sass from the game’s lively narrator whenever you do something particularly stupid or blatantly sexist (this route’s particularly fun if you’re an English student who’s read the play before).
Alternately, you can dive off the rails the first chance you get, Stanley Parable style, and end up with a narrative that turns out completely differently. You want Hamlet to kill Claudius in Act I and cut out a play’s worth of hamartia-induced indecision? Go ahead! Do you want an ending where Ophelia kills everyone in the play and has a final climactic chess duel with Queen Gertrude? Or an ending where Hamlet Sr. gets over his issues and becomes Ghost Batman? Don’t let me stop you!
Whichever route you take, you can expect to get some genuinely funny dialogue out of it. There’s also the reward of a small piece of artwork for every ending you manage to reach, contributed by a plethora of fellow webcomic artists from Andrew Hussie to Kate Beaton. The art isn’t that prominent apart from that, so if you’re a fan of one particular artist more than Shakespeare or Ryan North I’d be wary, but it’s a nice incentive to keep going and serves to give you something to look at apart from simple blocks of text.
Other potential annoyances – since checkpoints only happen at major twists or turns in the plot, there are moments of scrolling through text for about three minutes to find the one branching choice you want to retry. Finally, humour is subjective, and this game’s pretty heavily reliant on it. Personally, I found the approach taken here – Hamlet as retold by your snarky friend who likes ghosts saying “S’up” and subplots where Hamlet fights pirates in the rain – to crack me up as I have rarely been cracked, but if that description wants to make you punch something in the face then this probably isn’t the game for you.
In terms of longevity, I’ve been playing the game for three hours and still haven’t seen everything. The total number of endings apparently goes over 100, so whether you think that’s worth the £9 asking price is probably up to you – personally, I’d wait for a Steam sale to kick in, since the game’s been available for £2 or lower at certain points in the calendar.
So I managed to enjoy this game and be an English student at the same time, and I’m sure you can too! It’s a fresh interpretation of a text that’s been extensively studied over the years, and the gameplay’s simple enough to draw you in even if you’re not a big fan of video games. In summary:
To buy or not to buy? If you’re a bloke
Or lady who likes wit and funny jokes,
Or narratives that have a branching plot,
I strongly urge you give this game a shot.
…or, y’know. Four stars.